Holcombe resigns as education secretary

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MONTPELIER — Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has abruptly resigned from her post just weeks before she was expected to unveil a statewide school district consolidation map.

The Secretary of Education is expected to recommend a plan on June 1 that will move any unmerged school districts into larger governance units. The State Board of Education will work with the secretary to submit a final plan.

Holcombe did not give a reason for her resignation in a letter that was submitted to the governor's office. She declined to be interviewed.

"Last week, I submitted my resignation as Education Secretary to Governor Scott, effective April 1," she told teachers and administrators in a letter on Tuesday. "It is time to move on."

Gov. Phil Scott declined to give specifics about the circumstances of Holcombe's departure and said he did not know what the secretary would do next.

"This was her decision and I value what she has given to the state over the last four years, what she has done for our cabinet. I valued her as a team member. She thought it was best for her to leave at this time," he said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. Scott said he learned of her resignation at the end of last week. Asked if he thought it was unusual to get just one week notice from a departing cabinet member, he said he hasn't been in office long enough to know.

The governor was asked whether differences of opinion with Holcombe on policy and cost containment proposals had spurred the decision. He responded that it was a "personal" decision.

"I believe in a team philosophy. We all get together. We voice our opinions and at the end of the day we come out with one voice," Scott said.

Scott has also been pushing for further cuts to school budgets, despite towns having already approved budgets for the coming year that came well under the administration's spending expectations.

In her letter, Holcombe said she believed Scott would see eye-to-eye with her successor. "I am confident the Governor, working with the state board of education, will appoint a secretary who shares his vision, and I wish him the best moving forward," she wrote.

Holcombe, a Democrat who was Scott's first cabinet appointment as governor, holds a doctorate from Harvard University, has served as CEO of the state's public education system since January 2014. Prior to her tenure as agency chief, she was a principal in the Rivendell School District. She led efforts to develop personalized learning plans for students, a dual enrollment program for high school seniors that enables them to earn college credits and a controversial overhaul of state guidelines for private schools. Over the past several years, she has overseen one of the most contentious reform efforts in the state's history — Act 46 — the merger of dozens of school boards into consolidated districts.

Scott said Holcombe's departure won't affect the rollout of a school consolidation map.

In Brattleboro, Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Superintendent Lyle Holliday said she appreciated Holcombe's efforts on behalf of Vermont students. "She has been a person who has been easily accessible and willing to work with those of us in the field," Holliday said. "Of course, for those of us who expected to hear of a plan to move ahead with Act 46 compliance, we are eager to hear how this will move forward while there is an interim Secretary of Education in place."

Lawmakers said they were surprised by the news of Holcombe's resignation. Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol and chair of the House Education Committee, said he is worried about how the departure could impact the final stages of school district planning. "Of course I'm concerned. I was concerned even with her there," Sharpe said.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, described Holcombe's departure as a loss. She was a "true visionary at a critical time for Act 46. She had a deep and broad understanding of the legislation."

The State Board of Education was notified of Holcombe's sudden exit on Tuesday. Chair Krista Huling said the board will hold an emergency meeting this week to start the process of searching for a new secretary.

"This is a tough position to fill," Huling said. "The person serves at the pleasure of the governor, it is not very high paying — many of the great education leaders in this state would halve their salaries for double the work — this is why losing Holcombe is such a big loss for the state."

Huling said she isn't worried about the rollout of the final Act 46 district map because Education Agency employees will be able to complete the task. Scott said he will appoint an interim secretary in the coming days and will work with the State Board of Education to appoint a new permanent secretary "who will build on the progress Rebecca has achieved in her tenure."

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